The Saint from Shenandoah
Bread and Water
Once there was a scrappy Polish kid from Shenandoah, PA named Walter Ciszek. Walter came from a devout Catholic family, but Walter was tough. He liked to pick fights. Had he grown up in different circumstances, he might have ended up in a street gang, but being raised in a good Catholic home (dad took him down to the police station once and asked them to send him to reform school!), he eventually channeled his toughness into challenging ascetical practices. During Lent one year, for example, he decided to live on just bread and water, just to prove to himself that he could do it. To everyone's surprise, he entered the seminary after high school and then determined to join the Jesuit order. Physically and mentally strong, Walter Ciszek would need every ounce of his God-given strength to face the desperate, excruciatingly painful years ahead.
Twenty-three Years in Hell
In the years following the Russian Revolution, when so many Catholic clergy had been murdered and imprisoned, Pope Pius called for volunteer priests to be ordained under the Byzantine rite and become missionary priests in that war-torn country. The tough kid from Shenandoah jumped at the chance. Immediately he knew this was God's will for his life. But the Second World War was fast approaching, and the Russian tanks plowed into Poland, where Fr. Walter was assigned. Agonizing over what to do, not wanting to leave his parishioners, he finally decided Russia was where he belonged after all.
But shortly after entering Russia from occupied Poland, Father Walter was arrested as a spy. He was held in solitary confinement in Moscow's infamous Lubianka prison for five brutal, punishing years. Finally cracking under the endless pressure of starvation, emotional isolation, and relentless interrogations, he "confessed" to being a spy for the Vatican. His sentence: fifteen years at hard labor in the frozen wasteland of Siberia! Incredibly, at first he was relieved at this sentence, just to be out of solitary and able to interact with other people once again.
Suffering 23 years of misery in the form of extreme cold and starvation, living among hardened criminals who would kill in a heartbeat, Father Walter was released and eventually swapped with two Russian prisoners.
Returning to the U.S. in 1963, he spent the rest of his life teaching at Fordham University, giving spiritual direction, and writing. With God in Russia is the detailed story of his youth, his vocation to the priesthood, his burning desire to go to Russia as a missionary. The book recounts the long years of imprisonment with incredibly vivid and specific recollection, finally relating his eventual release. He Leadeth Me, Father Walter's second book, tells the same story but from a more spiritual perspective. Having read both books, I highly recommend both of them. World War II buffs will especially enjoy the first one as it provides much more detail about the ongoing situation in Russia during the war years. He Leadeth Me is shorter and offers more personal insights about Father Walter's spiritual metamorphosis over the course of his long ordeal.
Surrendering to God's will in all things and relying completely on God's providence, Father Walter miraculously survived the extreme conditions in the wartime Russian prison system while finding the strength to minister to Eastern Catholics who had no access to priests or the sacraments due to the atheistic Communist government having outlawed the practice of religion.
For anyone who has struggled with reconciling the problem of evil with a loving God, Father Walter's moving story will inspire you with the incredble strength of the human spirit in the face of profound physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges.
Father Walter Ciszek has been declared a Servant of God by the Catholic Church, and his cause for canonization is in process. For more information on Father Walter, including testimonials and instructions on how to join the Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League, visit www.ciszek.org.
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If I have erred in any statement, whether directly or by implication, in any matter pertaining to faith or morals, I humbly invite fraternal correction.